Friday, July 18, 2008

What Is Mass Really About?

This is the first in a series of three homilies over the next three weeks about the different attitudes, expectations, and ideas that can be an obstacle to our truly participating in and receiving the fullness of graces Christ intends to give us in the Mass. Check back next week for the next installment!

Homily for the Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Isaiah 55:10-11
Romans 8:18-23
Matthew 13:1-23

In St. Paul’s letter to the Romans today, we hear that “all creation was made subject to futility.” All created things are futile, that is, in the end they will come to nothing – except, that is, in and through the saving and redeeming power of Christ. In and through Christ, St., Paul tells us, all creation will be set free and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God. This is similar to what we heard last week, also from St. Paul – that we are not debtors to the flesh, but rather, we have power over the flesh – we have power over the world and sin.

But, as I explained last week, we don’t seem to really live in, really make use of this power that we have been given in Christ. In Christ we are called to “live differently”, and through Christ we have been given the power to live differently, but that power and grace of Christ often goes untapped in our lives.

Last week I explained that there is spiritual “static” that, like the static we hear on the radio, interferes with our receiving the full outpouring of the grace and power which Christ gives us in every Mass. Like the static which can drown out a program on the radio, this spiritual static can interfere with our receiving the “signal” that Christ is sending us in the liturgy. But unlike the static on the radio, which comes from an outside source, most of the time the static that gets in the way of receiving everything we’re meant to in the Mass comes not from an outside source, but from ourselves.

When we come to Mass, we bring our own preconceptions, attitudes, and ideas with us. But often these attitudes and ideas come from the world, come from our surrounding culture rather than our faith – and these attitudes and ideas are actually obstacles to truly receiving the graces of the Mass.

In our gospel, the Lord tells us the parable of the sower: Now Jesus is speaking literally here of the Word of God, but there is a deeper meaning and signifance here. For Jesus himself is the Word of God become man. And where do we receive Jesus? (a parishioner says "at Mass".) . Of course, in the Mass. So this parable also tells us something about what can interfere with our receiving the fulness of graces in the Mass.

Jesus first refers to the seed that falls on the path, which is immediately eaten up, and tells us that this refers to those who hear the Word without understanding it. Well, if we don’t understand what the Mass really is, if we don’t understand what the Mass is really for and what it’s supposed to do, then it’s power never really has a chance to bear fruit in our lives.

The first problem with understanding what the Mass is for comes from confusing purpose and result. We can see how this can cause trouble if we look at the problem in another area of our lives. (points at a parishioner) Now, Ann, you work at the school, right? Ok, now, would it be correct to suppose that you’ve become friends with some of your coworkers? Yes, good. Now, would you say that the purpose of your job is to provide you with friends? No, of course not. Purpose and result: they’re not the same. And I would imagine that, if you began to treat your job as though it’s purpose was to provide you with friends, that would get you into trouble, sooner or later.

Well, the same sort of thing happens with regard to the Mass. We tend to have certain associations and experiences at Mass, and so we come to think, almost unconsciously, that that is what Mass is for. It’s a natural enough thing to happen. After all, when we have similar experiences repeatedly, our minds naturally connect them. For example, I would imagine that for most of us, most of the time, when we go to Mass it’s an uplifting experience – we feel good after Mass, or at least better than we did beforehand. But we only have to think about it for a moment to realize that’s not what Mass is for. God didn’t give us the Mass in order to give us certain kinds of emotions or a certain kind of experience. Again, purpose and result. The fact that a certain result tends to happen when we attend Mass doesn’t mean that that’s the purpose of Mass.

This brings me to something that happened in my previous parish. I’ve related this story before, but it applies here so I’ll use it again: I once got a phone call from a parishioner, who was very angry with me about what happened at Mass the previous Sunday. He said, “I’ll never come to one of your Masses again, Fr. Rob! I felt terrible when I left Mass.” I didn’t know what else to say, so I said, “I’m sorry that happened”. He then said, “I don’t go to Mass to feel bad. I go to Mass to feel good. I don’t need you to make me feel bad at Mass.” I said, “you go to Mass to ‘feel good'? Every time?” “Well,” he said, “most of the time, anyway.” I replied, “well, I can’t say specifically, but perhaps God is trying to show or tell you something that’s challenging or difficult, and that’s why you felt bad. Maybe you needed to feel bad about something.” “I don’t need this”, he retorted. And he hung up.

So here’s the problem: this man had gotten it into his head that the purpose of Mass was to make him “feel good”. Now, he is an extreme example, but I’d be willing to guess that most of give in to that kind of thinking, at least occasionally. But here’s the thing: even if we never felt we got anything out of Mass, it would still be the most noble, holy, amazing, and important thing we could ever do – because the Mass isn’t about us. The Mass is about giving the perfect honor, glory and worship to God, through making present to us here, on this altar, the eternal self-offering and sacrifice of Christ. The Mass is about Jesus, not about us.

The temptation is always to try to make the Mass about something else, rather than God. It’s a temptation that has been there from the beginning of the Church. If you read the letters of St. Paul you’ll see the problem is there already. And the temptation to make the Mass about something else is really just a cover for the real underlying temptation, which is to make the Mass about us. That’ the old man, that’s the damage of original sin, working in us. So, for example, another thing that has gotten tossed around a lot over the last 20-30 years is the idea that the Mass is a “celebration of community”. Now that’s one of those things that sounds good when you first hear it: a “celebration of community”. But once you start to look a little more closely, you realize, well, no... it isn’t. The Mass isn’t the community celebrating itself. Making the Mass about “community” is just making the Mass about us. And the Mass isn’t about the community of us. It’s about offering the perfect honor, glory and worship to God, through making present to us here, on this altar, the eternal self-offering and sacrifice of Christ. The Mass, once again, is about Jesus, not about us.

Here’s an illustration: (I call up a parishioner.) Now, imagine we have never met before. Suppose I came up to you and introduced myself, and, after you introduced yourself, I were to do this: ( I put my arm around parishioner.) Would you be my friend? Please would you be my friend? Won’t you please, please be my friend? (etc.) If I did that, would you be likely to become my friend? No, of course not. Indeed, you would probably try to avoid me. Why? Because that’s not how friendship works.

Friendship doesn’t happen as a result of trying to get it directly. It comes about “along the way” as the result of doing some other good thing together. It’s the same way with the good things that we receive as a result of participating at Mass. We receive them because we’re doing a far more important good thing – giving God honor, glory, and worship through Christ His Son. We don't receive them because we seek them in and for themselves.

We have to stay focused on what the Mass is really about – Christ. If we’re concentrating on, worrying about what “I” am getting out of the Mass, then we’re misplacing our energy. If I’m thinking about what “I” am getting out of Mass, then I’m thinking about me, not God. And if my mind isn’t on God, then I’m not really, fully participating in Mass. And if I’m not fully participating, then I’m not open to receiving the fullness of grace and power that Christ offers us. So, if we want to “live differently”, if we want to gain the full power of Christ’s offering of Himself in the Mass, then we need to put worshipping Him first, and all else will be given us besides.